African Swine Fever hurts small farmers in ASEAN as governments try to stop its spread

Photo: Liz West

African Swine Fever threatens to cripple the pork industry in Vietnam and Cambodia, as smallholder farmers struggle to prevent outbreaks.

By Skylar Lindsay

In Vietnam’s Dong Nai province, local farmers say that a pillar of their economy – and the country as a whole – is under threat.

“Farmers will surely go bankrupt if the disease hits their farms,” said Nguyen Thi Kien, a pig farmer in Dong Nai, just outside of Ho Chi Minh City.

She’s referring to African Swine Fever (ASF), a disease that’s been putting intense pressure on farmers and food supplies as it spreads from China into Vietnam and Cambodia. Vietnam reported its first case – the first in Southeast Asia – in February. It had spread to Cambodia by March.

Over the past four months, Vietnam has culled over two million pigs that farmers couldn’t use for pork. The culling shows the scale of the country’s campaign to tackle ASF – any infected pigs must be killed.

But the disease hits small pork producers hardest and governments in the region will struggle to support their farmers during this difficult time. Governments and organisations like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) are working to help farmers access resources, stop the spread of the disease, and protect the livelihoods of Nguyen Thi Kien and her neighbours.

Swine fever poses no threat to humans but infection spreads easily

After a pig is exposed to ASF, the animal may not show signs of infection for one or two days. But within five days, most infected pigs will die – the mortality rate is close to 100%.

ASF poses no health risk to humans but studies have shown that 46% of outbreaks in Asia came from contaminated workers. The virus can spread via farm machinery, clothing, shoes, and vehicles. It can also survive for extended periods in preserved pork or dead animals.

A hog confinement barn.

Hogs also often become infected due to contaminated water or swill – liquid feed. A study found that 34% of recent outbreaks in China were connected to swill feeding.

The disease is hitting small farmers the hardest

“The most impacted farmers are smallholder pig farmers basically they don’t have the capacity to develop biosecurity to prevent ASF,” Dr Hung Nguyen-Viet, Regional Representative for East and Southeast Asia at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Vietnam, told ASEAN Today. “The smallholder farmers are still dominating in Vietnam and that leads to challenges for control and prevention of ASF.”

Vietnam has one of the world’s highest rates of pork consumption per capita. Pork accounts for three-quarters of the country’s meat consumption. Smallholder farmers produce the majority of the country’s pork, providing between 60 and 80% of pork products. An estimated three million households in Vietnam rely on pork production for their livelihoods.

“Many households have completely lost their herds. Some families with medium farm size have lost up to US$50,000 because of ASF,” Dr Nguyen-Viet told ASEAN Today.

The Vietnamese government has said it will compensate farmers for any pigs they cull at 80% of the market value – reportedly around US$1.7 per kilo (380,000 dong). For sows and boars, the compensation is 1.5-2 times higher.

“The farmer is in a dilemma: does he kill the pig and sell it, or report the case to the authority? It’s debatable whether he’ll receive enough compensation,” Dr Trevor Drew, member of the Asia Standing Group of Experts on ASF and Director of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, told ASEAN Today.

Additionally, the Vietnamese government isn’t able to compensate farmers immediately for culled pigs. Farmers currently have to wait for the payments to be disbursed.

In Dong Nai, a “pork capital” of the country, herd sizes have dropped by 20%, and many small pork producers in the area are switching to ducks, chicken, and sometimes ostrich to stay afloat.

“Commercial duck farms in Dong Nai are mushrooming,” said Nguyen Kim Doan, deputy head of the animal husbandry association for the province.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Health now has plans to freeze five million pigs in preparation for further outbreaks and the possibility of a pork shortage.

“[ASF] will make food prices – not just pork but also chicken and eggs and anything that consumers might choose as an alternative protein – more expensive for the next one to two years,” said agricultural analyst Even Pay from China Policy, a strategic advisory firm in Beijing. “The impacts of this will be felt disproportionately by the poor and middle class.”

Other countries are bracing themselves for an outbreak

In Cambodia, ASF has only been reported in the province of Rattanakiri. The outbreak has affected around 2,500 pigs, according to government reports to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). Any potentially susceptible pigs that didn’t die from the disease were culled.

In Thailand, the US$3.3 billion dollar pork industry is bracing for an outbreak. Most of the country’s pork comes from large corporations like Charoen Pokphand Foods (known as CP) and Betagro. These corporations are better prepared to cope with ASF. They have the resources to prevent infections, test for the disease, and shoulder the economic impact of culling pigs.

But an outbreak in the country would also threaten Thailand’s 180,000 smallholder pork farmers. The Agriculture Ministry has estimated that an outbreak affecting more than 50% of the country’s pigs could cost the economy over US$1 billion, rising to US$2 billion if 80% are infected.

Governments struggle to help small farmers and control the spread

The FAO and OIE, as well as independent experts like those at ILRI, are working with governments in Southeast Asia to coordinate their efforts to stop the spread of ASF. The OIE has been working to raise the capacity of all the veterinary authorities in the region by running training sessions, increasing awareness and producing literature in several languages.

To prevent the disease from spreading, Vietnam has barred all movement of pigs from “infected” provinces – those with confirmed cases of ASF. The FAO is also trying to communicate to farmers and governments that swill feeding, including giving hogs leftovers and kitchen waste, is now a very high-risk practice.

The government has instructed any farmer with a sick pig to report the illness to a local vet. In theory, the local vet can test for ASF but many local veterinary clinics lack the necessary expertise or lab access. Farmers may only have access to paraveterinarians, who may not have the training to deal with ASF.

In some cases, farmers are worried about the consequences if a case of ASF is found on their farm. Instead of reporting the outbreak, they dump sick pigs on the side of the road or in canals.

But in Vietnam, the government is trying to support farmers affected by the disease to encourage them to report cases. If ASF is discovered, the infected animals are culled and the surrounding commune is declared an “infected commune.” The government will then monitor it closely but farmers in the area can still sell pigs.

On a large farm, pigs that share a fenced area with an infected pig must be culled but the rest of the herd can still be sold.

This differs from China’s approach, which has been to cull all pigs within three kilometres of an infected swine herd, suspend live pig markets in the area, and establish stations to inspect and disinfect traffic within 10 kilometres.

As soon as ASF was reported in Vietnam, both Laos and Cambodia limited their imports of pork from the country. In Cambodia, the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries works with ILRI, OIE and the FAO. The government has offered farmers compensation for any pigs they cull.

Thailand has tightened restrictions on its borders. Authorities have reportedly found contaminated pork products at airports and border checkpoints 43 times, but there have been no cases on farms.

According to Cheerasak Pipatpongsopon, deputy director-general of Thailand’s Livestock Department, Thailand doesn’t import any pork or live hogs but exports about 40% its pork production to Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. The Thai government is launching a US$4.7 million program to prepare for a national outbreak.

As national borders in mainland Southeast Asia are porous and sometimes loosely controlled, the disease will likely continue to spread, hurting farmers, corporations and local livestock-based economies. ASF doesn’t constitute a health emergency for humans, but it is testing regional coordination and governments’ capacities to support rural populations and agricultural livelihoods.